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Wildland Fire Training: Learning from Past Tragedies

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Updated: Tue, 08 Jul 2014 05:23:05 MST

CHAFFEE COUNTY, COLO. - In the middle of the Chaffee County woods, Colorado Firecamp teaches the next generation of hopeful heroes to fight better, which means fighting smarter.

"It's not easy," said Garrett Carney, one of the camp's trainees during a chainsaw class. "It's not for just everybody. It takes a lot of focus."

"Sixteen hour days are not uncommon, 14 days in a row..." added Kent Maxwell, training coordinator for the wildland firefighting school. "The lessons that one generation learns are not always shared with the next generation."

That's what Maxwell set out to change when he started the program 10 years ago. Twenty years ago, 14 wildland firefighters lost their lives in the Glenwood Springs South Canyon Fire. Just one year ago, 19 hotshots were overtaken by the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. The overwhelming them for both of these tragedies, as well as so many others, is that they were preventable.

"What I've definitely seen is a greater push toward a greater accomplishment in leadership training, which was one of the legacies of the South Canyon Fire," Maxwell explained. "[A push toward] getting a whole curriculum, getting an emphasis on duty, respect and integrity."

There has also been a culture shift toward better managing the risks firefighters take.

"What is the benefit?" Maxwell asked. "Why is it they are doing what they are doing? Whether it's felling a particular tree or it's marching up a particular ridge to fight a fire. What's to be gained from it? And if they can't make a determination that it's a life safety issue, then its not worth a firefighter taking more than a calculated risk."

"It's challenging at times," John Teague explained, during a hike around the grounds outside the classroom. Teague is an eight-year career firefighter with Boulder Rural Fire Department. He and a couple colleagues traveled to the camp just outside of Salida to further hone their skills. "I've seen stuff that most people don’t see."

"It's in high heat; it's low humidity; it's smoky," said Maxwell. "It can be some miserable work conditions."

Due to the lack of water readily available nearby, 90 percent of wildfires are successfully fought from the ground using chainsaws and hand tools.

"You don't have a hydrant just at the end of the corner," Maxwell described. "You don't have the ability to deliver that water. So it's a manual, hard, physical, labor job is what it is."

As a blaze quickly eats through dry brush, workers on the ground must be even faster.

"It's extremely demanding, physically and mentally," added Teague. "We're required to make very quick decisions in a very short period of time."

"[They have to consider] which way the wind is coming from, how big the tree is, if it has a head lean, if it has a side lean..." explained Jerry Andrew, instructor for the chainsaw class.

Thanks to techniques studied at institutions like the Colorado Firecamp, wildland firefighting continues to evolve. With technology also evolving, veterans like Maxwell speculate what the landscape of firefighting could look like one day. But he believes there's something even better each firefighter can't survive without: hindsight - lessons hard-learned from previous generations.

"We keep striving to make those lessons noble and share those lessons so that they are not forgotten," Maxwell concluded.

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